The Bison are Back in Town

posted in Process on September 10 by Conor Brady, LEED AP BD+C

Coming off the successful resolution of several education projects, I was surprised to find myself working on the renovation of the long vacant Bison enclosure, located centrally along the Olmsted Walk at DC’s Smithsonian Institutiton National Zoo. My clients prior to this had been students, and the educators and administrators tasked with educating them – my clients were now… bison?  Instead of acoustic goals for enhancing learning, we were talking about grazing areas, and fences that could withstand up to two tons hitting them at thirty miles per hour – a contrast, to be sure.

The history of Bison at the Smithsonian is a long and dear one, with Bison once grazing upon the mall in front of the “The Castle” in the 1800s, and their return to the Zoo was long overdue. Children, frantically on their way to see the new panda cub on view on the Asia Trail, would get to glimpse two enormous representatives of an animal that once ran with freedom over large portions of the United States.

The Bison have heavy shaggy coats of fur – very helpful in the cold wintery plains – that lessen somewhat during the summer, but never fully disappear. A shading structure would be necessary for their comfort. The bison also have no qualms about walking about in the middle of freezing winter – remember, their coats? – so heated watering devices would need to be provided around the yard. The intricacies of feeding and examining mostly wild animals that can be over a ton of weight required a complex of gates and wires for handlers to operate, as well as a “squeeze gate” that comfortably immobilizes the huge creatures while their vital signs are monitored.

The project represented less of an aesthetic or space creation task – the program was after all one of the less complex briefs you ever face as an architect: a shelter, and a field of grass to walk and graze in. It was more an interesting example of the coordination skills that we often find ourselves having to call on in this field: balancing the needs of the animals, their handlers, and the zoo organization as a whole with pragmatic concerns of budget, reuse of existing and derelict facilities, and a wide array of consultants providing specialized information – from a firm that specializes in animal habitat design to a contractor who only supplies complex large animal gating systems.